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At Mind Matters News: Do animals understand death?

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Anthropologists have gone back and forth as to whether animals grieve. They seem—almost as if intentionally—to miss the point.

The famous Japanese dog Hachikō’s lifelong devoted vigil at the train station is touching in part because he could not know that his human friend had actually died:

Death, after all, is an abstraction. We can be told that someone has died and, without seeing the person’s body, we know what that means. We also know that all human beings (and all animals) will die sometime. But that is an abstraction too. For humans, mourning is a philosophical as well as an emotional affair. As a result, death raises questions about the meaning of life which Harper, the monkeys, and Hachiko could never ask.

It is these thoughts and questions, not only grief, that have always underlain funerals

Denyse O’Leary, “Do animals truly grieve when other animals die?” at Mind Matters News

Other articles you might enjoy on animal mind and animal intelligence:

The real reason why only human beings speak. Language is a tool for abstract thinking—a necessary tool for abstraction—and humans are the only animals who think abstractly (Michael Egnor)

Mirror, mirror, am I a self? Scientists ponder, how would animals show self-awareness? (Denyse O’Leary)

5 Replies to “At Mind Matters News: Do animals understand death?

  1. 1
    asauber says:

    When my one cat Spike died a few summers ago, her sister Hazel seemed agitated.

    I discovered Spike’s dead body in the living room when I got home from work one day. She had gotten her claw stuck trying to climb on to her comfy chair and died hanging there. She seemed sick the night before, and I was going to take her to the vet when I got home, but I never got the chance.

    Hazel was right there next to her mewling when I came in the door. I could have sworn she was trying to tell me something was wrong with Spike.

    I know that is not understanding death at all, but it’s understanding something. Maybe. 😉


  2. 2
    News says:

    Asouber at 1: Indeed. Here’s a test:

    Suppose you buried Spike in the garden. You come home from work by the back way and there is Spike sitting on the steps waiting to be let in. Hazel is staring at her from the back window.

    As between you and Hazel, who would be more likely having a conniption? And why do you think that is?

  3. 3
    asauber says:

    I would be having the conniption.

    Cats don’t understand death.

    It would be interesting though, to see if Hazel would take Spike back as her cuddle/nap buddy.


  4. 4
    News says:

    Asauber at 3, she probably would. Quite readily. She has no basis for assuming that her companion won’t come back. So if she does, well, that’s good. Your basis for assuming that she can’t come back is abstract information that conforms with everything you know about the world.

    This is a handy illustration of the way in which the human understanding of death consists partly in abstract information.

  5. 5
    asauber says:

    From the Of Course This Would Happen During This Thread Dept.-

    Hazel had another acute episode yesterday. Her kidney numbers are bad again. When I get home from work I’ll have to tell the missus. Not looking forward to what’s ahead. 🙁


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